The Woolworths Leader Managing Supermarket Finances During Covid

By Nina Hendy

Being in finance for Australia’s largest supermarket during panic buying in 2020 isn’t for the faint hearted. But Cade Simpson says teamwork across the business helped deliver positive outcomes during the peak of the crisis.

The core role of finance leadership isn’t reporting and budgeting, according to the finance director of Woolworths Supermarkets, Cade Simpson.

The job is much more than that. It’s about helping a business to navigate their strategic landscape and define a course correction strategy through leadership and commercial partnership, he says.

“The finance function is about providing solutions to the business. It’s not about saying ‘no’, but about leveraging and refining the business ideas to create sustainable outcomes,” Simpson says.

It’s a fascinating take on finance from a professional with plenty of experience in the FMCG space. Originally from South Africa, Simpson moved to Australia for lifestyle reasons after some overseas travel a decade ago. “I never really settled back into South Africa after travelling. I got a taste of global markets and global business and always wanted to move,” he says.

He was snapped up by GlaxoSmithKline as the senior finance manager, before heading to Mars to work as the business strategy and finance manager. He also spent a year as the national finance manager at Coles.

Simpson joined Woolworths five years ago as the company was going through a turnaround project focused on price under a new CEO Brad Banducci. “We reset the business from a financial and strategic standpoint. Our systems were pretty average, and our teams were fairly disengaged and it was actually quite hard at the time to attract talent,” Simpson says.

“As our CEO led us on a journey to being a purpose-led retailer, bringing a little good to everyone, every day, there was a significant cultural shift – this was no different in finance.”

Today, he’s in charge of a team of 120 in the finance team within the Group’s supermarket business that boasts a $40 billion annual turnover, partnering with the managing director for supermarkets, Natalie Davis, and working to support the Woolworths Group’s wider finance function with CFO Stephen Harrison. His broad responsibility covers all things finance-related, along with initiatives impacting supermarket strategy.

The pandemic impact

Emerging as a frontline business during the Covid-19 lockdowns presented his team with a number of challenges as sales grew, as consumers spend more time at home.

“We’ve seen consumption increase. People haven’t been allowed to eat out or travel, and we’ve seen people spending more in food retail.”

Living with the uncertainty that Covid brings has taught him to live with less rigour, which he admits doesn’t come naturally to a lot of finance teams, he says.

“As retailers, we love the cut and thrust nature of retail. It’s dynamic and fast-paced. But to be effective you need to be in balance and you need to be able to take the time to re-energise, refocus and reflect. Take a deep breath, as they say.”

Covid has accelerated workplace flexibility by five years, and also proven that businesses can work and thrive with teams working remotely. “That said, many of my team love the connections and energy that they get from working in a common space together, and have found creative ways to do this with virtual drinks,”

Balance is different for everyone, and he encourages leaders to allow teams to find space for themselves. “There are no rules in this space. It’s about each team and individual finding what works for them and keep them energised and effective while allowing them to decompress. For me personally, I don’t think my two dogs every got the number of walks that they have in the last eight months,” he says.

Leadership musings

Simpson champions careers and development for Woolworths Group Finance, which has launched a number of leadership programs. For example, 20 of the company’s top female talent are in a program called Elevate, which focuses on unlocking their future potential. Another program called Ignite is for 20 high potentials in the company as it works to build its future capability. There’s also mentoring programs for around 250 people run through an app.

During lockdowns, Woolworths kicked off a program called Something to Chew On, designed to be a simple lunch and learn concept. Around 20 showed up initially, but now 150 people regularly attend.

Leadership requires a constant readjustment of your perspective, along with curiosity and continuous learning. “My purpose for coming to work is about creating a great environment for the team to flourish and connect in. This is a key part of my role,” he says.

2020 has been about resilience and leadership resilience. It’s about being able to show up time and time again and lead the team and influence the business, but often at times it’s with great uncertainty and great ambiguity. “Regardless, as a leader, you’re required to provide direction to the team and the business,” he says.

In the future, finance teams will automate a lot of reporting, create more efficient processes and work in a more agile way. “Teams will need different solutions and need to have a growth mindset, a solutions orientation, working in ambiguity and whole system thinking will be key,” he says.

“It will be of heightened importance to really understand the end-to-end business and there’s no better way than getting out and about in the business to do this.

In fact, he encourages his teams to get out to stores, spend time with a group manager and work in store, be across store specials and do a competitor store walk. “Be curious about what they’re doing; or not doing,” he says.

“The future of finance is about having the right capabilities. And my leadership role is about making it a great place to work and building great teams and attracting great people,” he says.

“For me, it’s about creating the finance team as a destination. I want people to come and work in finance. I want them to come and work in my team. And creating the right environment, the right career clarity and development plans is super important to me,” Simpson says.